How contented are you? Content with your job and your income? Content with your family relationships and friendships? Content with your involvement in your church?
All the consumer surveys tell us that we live in an age characterised by discontent, though, of course, the marketers have a vested interest in stimulating that mindset to boost their sales. But should we be content? Might it be a close cousin of complacency in the family of inactivity and even sloth?
Mark of false teachers
There’s an intriguing comment by the apostle Paul at the end of his first letter to Timothy, that ‘godliness with contentment is great gain’ (1 Timothy 6.6). In context, he is warning Timothy about the false teachers who are invading the church at Ephesus, of which he is the pastor, and who are hoping to make a financial killing out of the erroneous teachings they are so keen to peddle. They think that their (false) godliness is a means to financial gain, whereas Paul teaches that (true) godliness is in itself the gain, especially when accompanied by ‘contentment’. The same word is translated in 2 Corinthians 9.8 as ‘having all that you need’ (NIV), so it means having sufficient resources, being satisfied with what you’ve got. If we aim for that, our true focus, as disciples, will be on growing more and more like the Lord Jesus, as the image of God is restored in us. Whether our financial resources are increasing, or not, is then a totally secondary issue.
Love of money
As Paul continues his instruction to Timothy, he identifies the love of money as ‘a root of all kinds of evil’. Eagerness for cash leads some to wander from the faith (1 Timothy 6.10), because, as Jesus himself said: ‘You cannot serve both God and money’ (Matthew 6.24). Not, you should not, but you cannot. That is, as soon as I start to live for money, because I am discontent with what I have (which we are all too often tempted to feel in our consumer-oriented society), at that moment, I shall stop serving God. It is that stark.
Revealing the heart
The reason is that where our treasure is will reveal where our hearts really are, whatever we may profess. Biblical discipleship puts God’s kingly rule in the driving-seat of my life, because that is the only way I shall be able to grow in godliness (righteousness). But it is also because I have a loving heavenly Father, whom I can trust to meet all my material needs (Matthew 6.33). That’s not everything I want, which would be disastrous, but all the necessities of life. I don’t have to pursue the gods of the consumer culture, because they are not where my contentment is to be found. My life is not defined by the car I drive or the goods in my home, the money in my account or my investment portfolio. I can be content with what my Father provides and, as I live by faith in his promises, I shall grow more like the Lord Jesus in godly contentment.
God with us
But how can this aspiration become reality? Hebrews 13.5 tells us: ‘Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have’. The two things are totally interconnected. When we are content, we won’t be greedy or grasping for more. But there’s a stronger motivation in what follows — ‘because God has said, “Never will I leave you: never will I forsake you”’. So we may say with confidence: ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?’ (Hebrews 13.6). Often, our discontent is fuelled by fear — either that we won’t have enough, or that someone may deprive us of what we do have. We then live as though the Lord was not constantly with us, a present help in all our troubles, who will never let us go and never let us down.
And yet, there remains such a thing as ‘holy discontent’. Not for money or material possessions, but for godliness. Put it this way — a Christian’s passion is to be like Jesus. This is the spur which stops us from settling down into spiritual lethargy or complacency. As soon as we think we have arrived at a passable level of godliness, we are in grave danger of freewheeling and ultimately starting to drift away from Christ. ‘Holy discontent’ is determined to use all the means of God’s grace to grow — not only in our knowledge and love of Christ, but also in our likeness to him. None of us has arrived there yet. All of us are still so far from what we might be. But, as one of the Puritan preachers put it: ‘The secret of never thirsting is ever thirsting’.